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Saturday Night Live: Backstage

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It's weird. I'm someone who's watched Saturday Night Live on and off over the years, starting only in the mid-90s when I was old enough (about 10) to get some of the sketches. But nothing gets me more excited than an SNL highlights show. Much like the real SNL, I'm often as disappointed as much as I am amused by whatever sketches they drag out of the vault, but it's a very pleasant thing, watching the greatest hits of a 36-year-long show that has starred half of America's famous comedians at one time or another. Saturday Night Live: Backstage obviously couldn't cover all the good stuff, because even running two hours, that simply isn't enough time. To really encapsulate the show, you'd have to somehow have Ken Burns adapt Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's epic tome Live From New York. It would run at least 20 hours, I bet. I think I'm onto something here. Guys, let's make that happen.

Until that does happen, we'll have to make do with this kind of stuff, where you've got your talking heads, your classic characters, your topical moments, and your great musical guests (like, uh, Avril Lavigne) in a nice little mash-up that happily lacked a narrator and just let people's memories do the talking. Probably the most interesting aspect of SNL: Backstage was Lorne Michaels displaying an element of candor on some of the show's history (he tends to be such a figure of mystery) and the vague sense of an critical voice in the editing at some points (the linking of Julia Sweeny's "Pat" character with all of Kristen Wiig's characters being one example). But largely, it was routine stuff, with most of the favorites you'd expect to see rolling out, from the Wild and Crazy Guys to the Church Lady to John Belushi's Samurai.


Obviously, it's nice to see all of that, but pretty much immediately the question with these things becomes: What did they leave out? Eddie Murphy's non-participation is to do with the actor (he's also the only guy not to contribute to Shales and Miller's book), but it led to a lack of focus on him and the transformative effect he had on the show (he's still the biggest star it ever produced, I'm sure most would agree). Chevy Chase did pop up as a talking head a couple times but only very briefly, another odd decision considering the impact he had (and stuff like Bill Murray taking a swing at him did not get mentioned). Other vets like Jane Curtin, Dan Ackroyd, and Garrett Morris (and Murray, although again that might have been his choice) weren't there at all.

I'm not at all surprised that some of the more pointed criticisms of the show that might have come from people like Janeane Garofalo didn't make it to air, but it was a little sad how the controversies they did address, like Damon Wayans quitting onstage or Sinead O'Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope, didn't at all address Wayans' frustrations with the show (in the former case) and made Lorne Michaels look like a total class act for not throwing Sinead out of Rockefeller Center (in the latter). It was interesting seeing Lorne recall his discomfort at the whole Pope situation, but any subtleties to the situation were basically ignored. Good on Alec Baldwin for recalling wanting to do a sequel to his boy scout child molester skit where he tears up pictures of the Pope. Candor is definitely not something he lacks.


On the other hand, as I mentioned before, there were some parts where the show seemed to be critical of SNL in its montages, more critical than you would have thought. Norm Macdonald's summary firing was the most prominent example: although Lorne's take on the situation was very diplomatic and Norm's also (he thought it was his dry comedy, not the OJ jokes), they definitely seemed to be pushing the opposite view. You've got NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer insisting his friendship with O.J. Simpson had nothing to do with the firing, and then you're cutting to three people who, far more persuasively, thought it did.

Then you had what seemed to be outright hit-pieces on characters like Chris Kattan's terrible Mango (who appeared SIXTEEN TIMES in five years) or Kristen Wiig's whole collection of characters. Now, maybe I'm reading my own opinions into this stuff. But how else could you take Julia Sweeny's melancholy recollection of her Pat character being driven into the ground by Lorne's insistence on a theme song, and the same outfit, and multiple recurrences and so on, and then a progression to Wiig's ridiculous theme song for Gilly, and appearances by the Target lady, and the woman who always tries to top everyone else, and the Gloria Swanson-y actress, and all her other mediocre characters who have appeared a hundred times too many? Wiig (who I honestly think is quite talented, but just driven to her worst impulses on SNL), bizarrely thinks with that recurring characters you can "go farther" and there's "no boundaries," which really seems like the opposite of the truth to me.


The newer cast members got more focus than they probably needed to, although that's always unavoidable, but the problem with their opinions is that they tend to be so reverent of the church of SNL, and why not? It was a legendary institution before some of them were even born. So their talking heads tend to be on the duller side, although since we didn't have Al Franken or whoever recalling the cocaine-fueled '70s, it's not like the older crowd were that much more interesting. With any of these things, the reverence gets tiring quickly, and you just want to see more sketches, making meandering sections like the focus on SNL's songs (Victoria Jackson's bimbo number? Really?) especially difficult to sit through. But there was enough of a mix of the obvious and the obscure that I found the whole thing generally satisfying, and hearing from failed members like Jim Belushi or Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Sarah Silverman is honestly a lot more interesting than Seth Meyers reflecting that "the monologue introduces the host to the audience." I don't really know how to assign a grade to this thing, but for its flaws, I wasn't bored, and that's not something I can say about every episode of Saturday Night Live I watch.

Stray observations:

  • The whole "set each bit to a musical performance from the show!" would have worked better if they'd concentrated on good performances (like Roy Orbison) and not totally bland ones (like Lavigne, or Britney Spears).
  • Conan O'Brien remembers Studio 8H as a "concrete rectangle," which is probably why so many musical acts sound terrible on SNL.
  • "The only general sense you had was that the more thoughtful pieces would be at the end of the show," Steve Martin cracks.
  • Robert Downey Jr.'s Elvis impression was the first clip of his year on the show I'd ever seen. Now I guess I get why they fired him.
  • I could honestly watch two hours of Chevy Chase falling down. Also happy they included his "word association" skit with Richard Pryor, one of the show's finest moments.
  • Alec Baldwin really was just the handsomest man alive, wasn't he?

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